For 35 years, Oregon’s Legislative Assembly has championed the needs of Oregon’s children with a visionary commitment to knitting back together a fractured and fragmented service delivery system. This commitment has evolved over the decades to include a myriad of agencies and state-funded non-profits dedicated to specific stages of the child development services continuum – from 0-3 yrs, to pre-school age, to 3rd grade reading, to secondary and higher education. In 2011, Governor Kitzhaber reorganized these early childhood development and education agencies for Oregon’s children to form a system for the “early childhood process” (0-20yrs), appointing an “Early Childhood Council” designed to reduce inefficiencies and redundancies and streamline the system. The results of this reorganization remain a mystery – the process is undefined, complex and in flux.
We have hit a collective realization – that for all of the amazing work being done by these organizations, the problem of child abuse and neglect continues among Oregon’s children. Does that mean these programs aren’t doing their job? No – they are doing heroic work every day.
So is it a lack of public funding? Not entirely. When times are hard it is human nature to say, “Let’s find where to cut.” Recessions are necessary because they force us to “trim the fat” in our personal lives, our corporate structures and our governmental programs. Agencies and non-profits working on behalf of Oregon’s children are not immune to economic realities, and as public dollars keep shrinking it’s easy to turn on one another – fighting for scraps and blaming ineffectiveness on lack of public funding.
Lack of funding is certainly part of the problem, but the public pie will never be big enough to go around. The solution is twofold: 1) Find better ways to scale services for Oregon’s children without increasing costs, and 2) Increase community mobilization around child development and abuse prevention efforts.
In our recent book, Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership, we talk about the kind of leaders that guide organizations and communities through transformational change. We believe these leaders exist in child abuse prevention for Oregon’s children, but we need more like them.
A Tale of Two Evolutionaries Working Hard for Oregon’s Children
Scale Services for Oregon’s Children
Meet Megan Shultz, the Executive Director of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) Lane County. The children of Lane County have been benefitting from the efforts of this Evolutionary woman for the last several years. Recently, she has discovered a way to scale CASA’s services and save more of Oregon’s children by rethinking the model for supervisory capacity. Here’s her story:
One of the best things about CASA is that you can do the math – you can calculate the number of kids that are in the legal system at any given time and you can predict how many CASAs you need in a given year. There is also a corresponding ratio for how many CASA supervisors will be needed (based on the demand for new CASAs). The traditional model has been to hire a full time employee to serve as a supervisor for each “batch” of CASAs. But as need grew and funds dwindled, this ratio became financially impossible. CASA Lane County just couldn’t hire the number of supervisors needed to manage the required CASAs. The net result was that children went without these critical services and the CASA organization began to slip into decline. The program was no longer sustainable.
Now fast-forward to 2012. CASA Lane County is managing to put more CASAs on the board than ever before, despite a struggling economy in Oregon. They’re doing it by recruiting experienced senior CASAs with exemplary performance to function as supervisors in a volunteer capacity (just as regular CASAs), and appointing a full-time employed supervisor to oversee this group of leaders. In other words, they decided to place more trust in the well-meaning, dedicated community members that had served them for years.
CASA Lane County, led by Megan, challenged the theory that community volunteers are incapable or unwilling to take on greater roles and responsibilities in order to serve more of Oregon’s children. They have succeeded in developing an innovative new staffing model that will ensure that every child that needs a CASA volunteer has one by 2016.
Megan’s bold move has created scalability for a struggling model and has drawn the attention of CASA organizations across the state. Not only is CASA Lane County better meeting the needs of children in the community, the success is spreading throughout Oregon. This incredible organizational transformation has been well-documented and will soon be published by the National CASA Association, so that other CASA programs who are committed to change will have a roadmap for the future. We can’t think of a more Evolutionary story for Oregon’s children than that!
OK – maybe we can. Here’s one more…
Community Mobilization for Oregon’s Children
Meet Jean Phelps, the retired Executive Director of The Relief Nursery in Eugene, Oregon. In 1984 Jean took the lead against child abuse in Lane County working on a shoe string budget out of the trunk of her car. Through her warrior-like conviction and determination over the next 25 years the Relief Nursery Model flourished to the standard of excellence that today is often referred to as “the Cadillac of child services” and named by Governor Kitzhaber as one of the four pillars critical for child abuse prevention in the state of Oregon. There are now 15 Relief Nurseries across the state.
What is a Relief Nursery? In its most basic form, a Relief Nursery is a non-profit community-based organization where families can go to address parenting challenges and children can participate in Therapeutic Early Childhood Programs. But for the families that Relief Nurseries serve, they are so much more. The children and families participating in Relief Nurseries across Oregon truly thrive. They are built on the concept that the best person to raise a child is that child’s parent – not the state foster care system. So, we have to help people be better parents while also addressing the needs of the child.
Every Relief Nursery has a waiting list of children and families desperate to participate in these successful programs. The reason is because families served by the Relief Nurseries of Oregon improve significantly across a variety of outcome domains related to child development and the prevention of child abuse. After just six months in a Relief Nursery program, we see the following outcomes:
- Reduction in foster care placement from 394 to 179 days; reduction in new placements from 57 to 5
- 13% decrease in family risk factors
- 30% increase in positive parent-child interactions
- 63% increase in parents reading to children at least three times per week
- 22% increase in families living above the Federal Poverty Level
- 16% reduction in use of costly emergency room services
- 32% increase in employment rate
*All data from 2008-2010 Evaluation of the Oregon Relief Nurseries produced by Portland State University
Families that spend longer than six months in a Relief Nursery program experience far greater levels of improvement. For example there was a 114% increase in the number of participating families living above the Federal Poverty Level after two years in the program. And the numbers just keep getting better.
The Relief Nursery grew out of a systems theory approach – the belief that solving child abuse for Oregon’s children would require addressing a variety of associated issues – drug abuse, parenting skills, hunger and poverty, mental illness, child development, etc. Relief Nurseries are able to provide this multi-pronged approach to healing families and accomplish their goals by mobilizing the strength inherent in every community. Because Relief Nurseries emerge from a community-based mobilization effort, they are able to break free of the “straightjacket” of primary dependence on state funding to support high-risk children and families. Now, that’s Evolutionary!
There are dozens of these great organizations caring for Oregon’s children. Birth to Three, Healthy Start and several other programs continue to gain national traction. We are doing a lot of good things for Oregon’s children and in many cases, we don’t fully appreciate what we have in our own backyard.
It is widely documented that systems drive behavior. So the fact that parents, teachers and caregivers often face a fractured, fragmented and incomplete system of community supports is not any one provider’s fault. But every provider in the system must begin working better together to “tighten the net” that catches our troubled children and families across the state. It’s time to leverage our strengths to help solve the complex issues and harmonize the energies of the thousands of well-meaning partners working for Oregon’s children, for the sake of our kids.
Our dream is that for Oregon’s children, child abuse will one day be as taboo as not wearing a seat belt or smoking on an airplane. Just a few decades ago it was common practice to smoke on an airplane or jump in a car and drive off without buckling up first. But today it would be insane for someone to light up on a plane! It’s just not something you do! It’s time to step up and take back your community’s children. Child abuse is everyone’s problem. Join us in volunteering for and supporting the valiant Evolutionaries that are working every day to keep Oregon’s children safe.